The enemy I speak of is colonialism. Not the colonialism which, for some, may seem to lie in the distant past, but colonialism in the new and (almost) universal understanding of the word -- namely, those features of colonialism which persist long after the coloniser has formally withdrawn. Colonialism in the new view refers to influence, ties, privilege, specialisation, domination, exploitation, and superiority.‘Know the enemy and know yourself,’ wrote Sun Tzu, ‘and you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.’ Sun Tzu was referring to knowledge—and the right kind of knowledge, he noted, brings victory.
The contrast between the old and the new was tragically highlighted recently when a South African premier, Helen Zille, respected for her role in exposing a major apartheid era cover-up, took to social media to declare that colonialism had brought about positives, including the judiciary and the transport system. This was the old view, a shallow understanding of colonialism which was out of touch with the world in which we now live, and heartless. In the new view of colonialism, many consider the positives unintended benefits—for the reason that the system was not created to benefit the majority, but only a certain group.
Colonialism, in the new understanding of the term, cannot be justified under any circumstances. To justify it may be compared with a woman who is raped, falls pregnant, and gives birth to a beautiful child. The child grows to be a successful young man, and now the rapist sends a letter to the victim, that the rape has brought blessing for all. In this case, the victim wishes not to be on equal terms with the perpetrator. The Martiniquan poet Aimé Césaire said about colonialism, ‘I am talking about societies drained of their essence, cultures trampled underfoot, institutions undermined, lands confiscated, religions smashed, magnificent artistic creations destroyed, extraordinary possibilities wiped out.’
How then shall we overcome the enduring legacy of colonialism? How may we finally break the heavy yoke? I return to the subject of knowledge. In three areas in particular, I see our knowledge of the situation as being critical to its transformation. All of these areas need to be clearly understood, because they serve as enduring instruments which contribute to the reluctance of the oppressor to be equal to the oppressed:
• Knowledge of racism. Race is the major factor which the oppressor uses to exploit natives, even foreigners. The ability to convince a certain group, often implicitly and insidiously, that a certain colour of skin is lordly, has to be the greatest instrument used to ensure that equality remains a myth. Even today, it would seem that most people find credence in this illogical belief. Through this perspective, many cultures have distorted and damaged their own norms, values, and practices, particularly in Africa.Sadly, those who ought to be at the forefront of developing Africa’s knowledge in these things have so often failed us themselves. The very people who should be helping us—religious and non-religious leaders, and members of state—operate on the same level as colonialists. They perpetuate a system of oppressor vs. oppressed. A sectional few desire equality, and in South Africa, we have now become the most unequal nation on earth.
• Knowledge of religion. Is the information provided by religious leaders a message that promotes equality, while uplifting the soul and uniting society? Or does religion factor into inequality because, with disregard for our social status, it proclaims that in God’s eyes we are all equal? Many religious leaders, too, proclaim a prosperity gospel, selling the idea to many in society that wealth is accumulated through worshiping God in a certain way—yet through the same message, they themselves become rich, so practically denying the quest for equality.
• Knowledge of generational wealth. Generational wealth proves that inheritance is a foreign word to many Black Africans. This wealth was fashioned through taking advantage of the preferential treatment that White people received through colonialism—and in South Africa, through apartheid. It is common knowledge that a White South African has greater opportunity of living a monetarily comfortable life than a Black South African counterpart. To equalise this requires that the one who is ahead uplifts the one who is left behind. The anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko emphasised that White people should gather amongst themselves to discuss their common problem.
The need is knowledge which teaches, rebukes, corrects, and trains—a kind of knowledge which is above all price for building a united society, because it helps us to do what is right. The Liberty Life Group in South Africa issued the following statement: ‘Knowledge is not merely fact. It is not a badge. It is not a bragging right. It is those few words that completely, utterly alter the way you see things.’ May we share knowledge that will build, unite, and assist us in redressing the injustices of our continent.
Image acknowledgement: Collectie Tropenmuseum.